A coalition of state senators has introduced a bill to dramatically change the management of Mauna Kea, the dormant Hawaii Island volcano that is a sacred place to some Native Hawaiians and one of the world’s premier sites for astronomy.

Senate Bill 3090 would create the Mauna Kea Management Authority to manage the mountain’s summit, which is now overseen by the University of Hawaii.

UH currently leases about 11,000 acres of conservation land from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to operate an astronomy center.

Mauna Kea is one of Native Hawaiians’ most sacred places and one of the world’s best site for astronomical observatories. A proposed bill would create a new framework for managing the summit. ©Sin Ok -stock.adobe.com

Since about 1970, the mountaintop has seen a growing array of massive telescopes operated by universities and international research organizations.

The mountaintop’s 13 observatories, developed under subleases with UH, include NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, the University of California’s W.M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Northern Telescope operated by a consortium including the U.S., United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Chile.

UH’s management has been criticized for its management in a line of state audits dating to 1998. Another point of frequent criticism is a sweetheart lease deal under which UH leases the land from DLNR for $1 annually.

The board that oversees DLNR in September approved a construction permit for the controversial $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.

Opponents describe the project as the latest act of desecration to the sacred summit, while supporters say it will be the world’s most advanced telescope and will advance human knowledge while bringing economic and educational opportunities to Hawaii.

Under UH’s purview, Mauna Kea has become the site of repeated protests and lawsuits, a point of seemingly intractable tension between scientists and indigenous rights activists. The bill, which was signed by 17 senators, says sweeping changes are needed.

Mauna Kea demonstrators telescope Keck Subaru Hawaii . 10 apr 2015
A Senate bill is designed to balance the interests of astronomers with those of opposed to the proliferation of telescopes on Mauna Kea. Pictured here are protestors against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“Although significant changes have occurred on Mauna Kea since the 1998 audit, negative experiences over the past fifty years have eroded public confidence and demonstrated the critical need for fresh leadership centered on a new organizational structure, management system, and procedures,” the bill says.

“Accordingly,” it adds, “the legislature finds that there is a clear need for one entity to serve as a single focal point of management, responsibility, communication, and enforcement regarding Mauna Kea.”

Specifically, the measure would establish the Mauna Kea Management Authority; limit the number of telescopes that could be authorized on Mauna Kea; authorize the renegotiation of leases and subleases pertaining to Mauna Kea, and require that revenue derived from activities on Mauna Kea be shared with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The bill also would exclude Mauna Kea from the definition of “public lands,” and provide free access to Mauna Kea for traditional cultural purposes.

The bill came after Big Island Sen. Kai Kahele held several meetings with a variety of interested parties, said Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, another supporter of the measure.

Sen. Kai Kahele held several meetings to build consensus for a bill that would create a management authority for Mauna Kea. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“On the matter of Mauna Kea, there’s no clear answer,” Galuteria said. “I think you should view it as a compromise. At least it’s our effort to find that right place that everyone can agree on.”

But even after Kahele’s groundwork, it seems there’s more work to be done.

Among those questioning the bill was Kealoha Pisciotta, a long-time Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and activist.

Pisciotta questioned the make-up of the board that would govern the authority, as well as provisions that would restrict access to the mountaintop and remove Mauna Kea from lands defined as “public lands” under state law.

Although Pisciotta had proposed creating a separate authority to manage Mauna Kea in a 2000 report, she said the bill stops far short of implementing all the report’s key ideas.

“The whole reason the management of Mauna Kea is inadequate is that Mauna Kea is sacred,” she said. “We’re not in it for the money.”

Still, Pisciotta praised the Legislature’s efforts to find a pono — or righteous and just — solution  and particularly praised a separate measure calling for a forensic financial audit of leases, agencies and other activities related to Mauna Kea.

Kahele, who chairs the Senate Committee on Higher Education, which will hold hearings on the bill, said he is eager to get more feedback from the public.

“No bill is ever perfect, but this is a start,” he said.

Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesman for UH, said university officials have just begun studying the measure, which was  filed late Wednesday just before the Legislature’s deadline.

But he said UH has not mismanaged Mauna Kea.

For example, Meisenzahl said the university has conducted extensive surveys to catalog the rare plants and wildlife on the mountaintop and had conducted archaeological surveys that identified 270 historic sites near the summit.

The university also has maintained public access, he said.

“To say that we’ve mismanaged the mountain is just not fair,” he said.

Bill supporters are hopeful it will help ease tensions regarding Mauna Kea. Among those expressing cautious optimism was OHA, which in November filed a lawsuit alleging UH and the state, alleging mismanagement of the mountaintop.

Some Native Hawaiians have protested the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea while others have supported it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) thanks the 17 senators who co-sponsored SB309,” OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna said in a statement. “As the legislative process moves forward, we look forward to a healthy discussion on the measure that involves a broad range of Mauna Kea stakeholders, including Native Hawaiian practitioners, educators, and others.

“OHA continues to maintain that better management on Mauna Kea is critical,” he said. “And this bill appears to be a bold step in that direction.”

Listen to Civil Beat’s Offshore podcast about the battle over TMT and the future of Mauna Kea.

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